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The Bolton Archipelago | The Nation

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The Bolton Archipelago

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A complete American isolationist may congratulate the Bush Administration and United Nations Ambassador John Bolton on his grandstanding vote Wednesday against the establishment of the UN Human Rights Council. Nobody else would.

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Ian Williams
Ian Williams is The Nation's UN correspondent. In addition to his work for the magazine, he frequently comments on...

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It was a clear case of prejudice masquerading as policy, with Bolton playing to his usual gallery of Know-Nothings on one side, while also relishing briefly being on the side of Human Rights NGOs and what he considers to be the liberal New York Times in criticizing the failings of the negotiated outcome.

But taken as a poll on the Bolton-Bush stand, 170 votes to 4 epitomizes America's waning global prestige.

The three states that the United States led into the "nay" camp were Israel, Palau and the Marshall Islands, which are among the highest per capita recipients of US cash in the world, along with the Federated States of Micronesia, which even Bolton couldn't bully enough. The two Pacific micro-states depend on the US Congress for almost their entire budget. There is an additional irony: For decades the United States stalled on allowing the former Trustee territory of Palau independence until it dropped clauses in its constitution that barred the United States from bringing in nuclear weapons to defend it.

Nor could one be sure that Venezuela, Belarus and Iran, the states that abstained, were necessarily part of the Administration's dream team.

In fact, for all the many compromises, UN General Assembly President Jan Eliasson and Secretary General Kofi Annan have pulled together what could be an effective and workable Human Rights Council--despite the Bolton blusterings, which did much to aid the opponents.

For example, although Bolton later jumped on Annan's proposal for a two-thirds majority vote for future members--after it had disappeared in the course of negotiations--he was almost certainly quite pleased. The United States has lost elections to the old Human Rights Commission before--and that was before the Bush Administration added Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib and "renditions" to the world's human rights vocabulary. Many diplomats at the UN feel that if the US delegation had actively and constructively participated in negotiations instead of posturing for domestic constituencies, the electoral requirement for a two-thirds majority would have been passed.

Similarly, Bolton was very reserved on the term limits for members, and showed initially that he would have preferred a permanent seat for the United States, even if it entailed one for China, hardly a paragon of human rights.

While Bolton is particularly tin-eared in how he listens to other countries, we should remember that it was the Clinton Administration that worked assiduously and steadily to attenuate the International Criminal Court, and then only signed the much-weakened instrument at the very end of his presidency. It was this attitude that cost the United States the seat in times past. There are far more substantial grounds on which states of goodwill, in a secret ballot, may have scruples about voting for this US Administration to have a seat on the council, although many may support Washington in LBJ's eminently pragmatic argument that it is better to have opponents inside the tent urinating outward rather than vice versa.

The American diplomatic approach to human rights is, in its own way, every bit as partisan and partial as some of the notorious human rights offenders who have conspired to emasculate the Human Rights Commission over the years.

Indeed, the best weapon of the Axis of Offenders in the old commission has been the US attitude, which has, for example, condoned, trained and financed some of the worst human rights offenders of the era in Central America, while fulminating against Cuba's much less serious offenses. Disagreement with the United States should not necessarily put a country in the dock for human rights offenses--although neither should opposing the United States allow an exemption.

It did not help that one of the last reports of the Human Rights Commission was on Guantánamo, in which the experts roundly condemned the US breaches of international law. Even though the commission's conclusions were not that different from the US Supreme Court--that internees have legal rights and should have access to the Courts--the Bush Administration and its supporters attacked the report in terms that could have been borrowed from a riposte by Cuba, Uzbekistan or Syria.

The council has addressed the genuine concerns of many members by adopting the principle of "universality" in a constructive way instead of its usual blocking context at the UN. All members' human rights records will come under scrutiny. The Axis of Offenders' main purpose in getting on the former commission was to block consideration of their cases, so this removes much of the incentive for them to be on the Council.

Countries that are genuinely concerned about human rights need to eschew their usual regional voting pacts, but we can be sure that the NGOs will keep their feet to the fire. And as for the United States, it would be good if it voted on the basis the State Department's own annual Human Rights Report, which has managed to be critical even of allies.

Along with the "Responsibility to Protect" resolution adopted last year, the Human Rights Council is a step forward for the United Nations. But far from being rewarded by Congress, watch out for attacks on the world's temerity for disagreeing with Ambassador Bolton.

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